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Wolverine President Tom Kennedy on Rethinking E-Comm and Finding Opportunities in Work Boots and Outdoor

Industry veteran Tom Kennedy assumed the Wolverine global brand president role as COVID-19 was starting to take over stateside, but the disruption did not impact his ability to lead effectively.

Kennedy, who joined Wolverine World Wide in 2015 as president of apparel and accessories, last oversaw the company’s Sperry brand. Now, he’s at the helm of Wolverine, taking charge in February 2020 at a time when the demand ramped up in the work and outdoor categories.

For spring ’22, there’s plenty of newness coming from the Wolverine brand, led by the Raider DuraShock and updates to the Hellcat franchise in the work category, as well as the new Torrent and Frost silhouettes for women in outdoor lifestyle.

But the company is delivering in a time of uncertainty, which is mostly created by ongoing supply chain challenges and severe port congestion.

Below, Kennedy shares with FN how he’s continuing to adapt to leading digitally versus in person and how Wolverine is tackling industry-wide issues.

What have you learned during your first year-plus with the Wolverine brand?

Tom Kennedy: “You always superficially understand something like COVID or a financial issue will impact a brand in its own way. What we’re learning about Wolverine as a boot brand is it was an opportunity to look at everything from product to distribution with a new lens because there was broader opportunity. We’ve talked a lot about the category and the gender-based opportunity, but we’re coming through this more stable than anything — other than maybe a true outdoor or running brand. We’re in a place where we’re looking for opportunity, and a lot of other brands are looking for recovery. We’ve been able to maximize opportunities with core items, and when we look at our product offerings, we’re in more categories with significantly fewer SKUs than we went into it. And due to COVID, you got to know your big accounts on a deeper, personal level. You’re on Zoom calls with someone at their kitchen table, there are children present. There’s no boundary between work and life. That was great for the first six months, but what we’ve spent the last nine to 12 months on is getting back to normal life. We’re working remote, but we still have to have a normal work day. Working remote doesn’t mean working 24/7. Long term, the work structure is going to look different, and the conversations about community and campus is something we’re going to have to figure out.”

Where are the greatest areas of opportunity?

TK: “We want to continue to dominate trade work, but the categories of lifestyle boots and outdoor are also big opportunities for us, as well as women’s. We don’t talk about it a lot, but the whole segment of warehouse footwear has been an enormous learning curve for us for opportunities. We want to stay No. 1 in trade work — we have two times the largest market share of any brand. We want to gain market share in outdoor, and this whole category of boots that are soft-toe or soft construction is a big opportunity. The second thing is historically, both as a brand — meaning Wolverine.com — as well as our accounts, we were under-penetrated digitally. Through COVID, we learned how to be a more digital brand with very simple things, like the technology highlights on a boot were at the bottom, but they need to be visible on a screen, so all of the stuff that would have been on the heel now is on the sides. We’ve had to learn not just from a behavioral [perspective], but from a product creation [perspective].”

How will brick-and-mortar versus e-comm settle out?

TK: “You absolutely will see a new level of digitalization for categories people didn’t perceive were digital. We already knew that 70% of our new consumers discovered a boot on their phone for the first time. I think categories will have a split between brick-and-mortar and digital appropriate for their consumer base. For us, it’s going to be different by category. Because of fit, we still have a lot of people who want to buy in a store until they buy their second or third pair. I don’t think there is going to be a ‘one size fits all’ platform that will work.”

How have supply chain pressures and port congestion impacted business?

TK: “We’re buying and looking further out, we’re tighter on SKUs, we’re more focused on what inventory we sit on in-house. But it’s just a daily change. We’re buying further out so we’re predetermining things, but that was going to happen anyway digitally because of our penetration in DTC. You just have to be aware of everything. You don’t just take the order anymore. You watch it all the way until it ships. I’m not saying we didn’t always do that, but you have to be aware of everything that pertains to those orders. We have very balanced sourcing between countries, between Bangladesh and Vietnam, I still have product in China, product in India, so you try to be balanced. The biggest change is you have to be a great communicator. You cannot surprise people. It’s a fact of life and you just have to navigate it. On core product, we probably keep two weeks more inventory — not endless new inventory — but our inventory is more productive because we are more focused.”

What is your outlook for the rest of the year with the supply chain situation? 

TK: “I feel like it’s going to continue to be a challenge, but we feel good about our opportunity for the year. We’re launching a lot of new products and we continue to feel good about that. We’re working closer with our big accounts to make them aware of logistics, and I would say our marketing plans have to be more fluid because you can get surprised on a Monday morning — or any morning. But we feel good about the balance of the year. But it’s going to continue to be logistically challenging — you’ll continue to have COVID spots in sourcing countries as well as in certain states in the U.S., so I just think we’re going to have to be flexible.”

Has your team returned to the office? And how are you navigating in-person communication compared to virtual? 

TK: “We have a percentage back multiple days. The onus on us is how do we create a culture while we’re doing this flexible work? We had an in-person sales meeting and for the social events I invited the entire building, which a year ago would have been just the sales team. The opportunities we have to get together physically, we have to make the most of them. And I do digital touch bases with the entire team at least once a week. We’ll get on a call and do a roundtable through all the functional areas and say, ‘This is the focus for the next seven days, these are the issues,’ and you definitely can tell from how early they log on how much they’re looking forward to the level of interaction. The call starts at 10 a.m. and usually we have people logged on as early as 9:50 a.m. just to see who else is logged on early to talk to people. And I check in with people more now than ever before. You have to be aware and be more human because this impacts everybody differently.”

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